Sept. 11, 2014 11:06 p.m. ET
Thousands of drivers receive a blessing at the Basilica in Scherpenheuvel each year. Mathias Ask for The Wall Street Journal
SCHERPENHEUVEL, Belgium—Belgium’s roads are among the riskiest in Europe so thousands of drivers come here to take out an Almighty insurance policy.
Every year, more than 5,000 people—most of them Belgian, along with a few Dutch and Germans—drive to this pilgrimage site to have their cars blessed by a priest.
For Mariano Duye, the trip is a family tradition. His mother used to take him to Scherpenheuvel to have the family car blessed. “In God we trust, so we drive safer,” he said.
He lives in Leuven, a half-hour drive from Scherpenheuvel, and has brought each of the five cars he has owned to the church. The blessing, he said, provides a sense of safety when he is back on the road.
Some, like Karen Ventsmolder from Limburg, who also brought a family picture for blessing, are driven here by faith. She said she was encouraged by an accident to bring her cars here.
The church at Scherpenheuvel isn’t the only one in Europe that blesses cars—there is a special Roman Catholic prayer for it—but it stands out because it is open every day.
It has also been in the business for centuries. The church here began a tradition for blessing horse-drawn carriages when it was built around 400 years ago. When people started driving cars, the tradition continued.
At the Basilica of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel, drivers bring their cars to the church gate and ring the doorbell next to a sign that says “autowijding”—”car blessing” in Dutch, the language spoken in this part of Belgium.
A priest steps out of a small priest house, where he stays from 9 to 5 each day with a two-hour break, and walks over to the motorists.
The priest says the Catholic prayer of the automobile, asking God to bless the vehicle and make sure the occupants are safe, and then sprays the car with holy water using a big, black brush.
The Rev. Luc Van Hilst has been at Scherpenheuvel for 19 years. Luc Van Hilst
The Rev. Luc Van Hilst estimates that around 30 cars are blessed on Saturdays and “easily” 50 cars on Sundays. There are about 100 cars a week. The most popular times are the early months of the year “when people buy new cars” and in September “when it’s easier to find a parking space.” That’s because buses bringing pilgrims to the town aren’t as active in the fall.
Father Van Hilst, who has been in Scherpenheuvel for the past 19 years, said the practice of blessing cars is also very popular with young people who have just received their first driver’s license.
People often bring images of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, even though his status was changed several decades ago by the Vatican. The full accuracy of St. Christopher’s life was questioned and he was removed from the Church’s universal calendar, which lists the days celebrating certain saints, though he remains celebrated in various localities.
Blessing automobiles isn’t limited to this corner of Belgium. In 2012, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Diocese of Providence described how he blessed his own car in an article for the weekly Rhode Island Catholic.
A priest blesses a car
The bishop’s administrative secretary Rev. Jeremy Rodrigues said car blessings in the U.S. aren’t common and typically happen by appointment. He added that the closest it gets to Scherpenheuvel is when the occasional motorcycle group asks for a blessing.
Car blessings also take place in Eastern Orthodox churches, while Buddhists and Hindus sometimes have their cars blessed.
In Scherpenheuvel, all over town there are signs pointing to the church and the specific gate where cars can enter. “If you don’t point it out, people don’t think of it,” said Father Van Hilst.
Since the 13th century, the town has attracted pilgrims because of its reputation as a sanctuary for the Virgin Mary. As the story goes, a boy tried to remove a small statue of the Virgin Mary from a tree, but was unable to move until someone put it back in the tree some hours later. Over the following centuries, there were several reports of miraculous healings in Scherpenheuvel, which led to the construction of the Basilica.
Today, one reason people flock to the site, according to Father Van Hilst, is Belgium’s risky roads.
A 2012 survey from the Belgian Institute for Road Safety showed Belgians largely don’t respect speed limits. In school zones, where the speed limit is 18 mph, Belgians drive at an average speed of 27 mph. Nearly two-thirds also break the urban 31 mph limit.
Drivers are beset by traffic laws that, for example, force drivers on major roads to yield at intersections to cars coming from the right.
In Western Europe, only Greece loses more people to car accidents per capita. The European Union averaged 55 fatalities per one million inhabitants in 2012. Belgium averaged 73 and the neighboring Netherlands, with a similar size and population, just 32.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number of fatalities in the U.S. during the same period was 106.9 per million inhabitants.
Despite the numbers, when the Flemish Automobile Association polled 2,000 Belgian motorists, it found nine out of 10 described themselves as good drivers.
Father Van Hilst says the prayers are for the people in the car and not the vehicle, and cites an aunt as an illustration. Before taking her car out one icy day, his aunt asked her mother, Father Van Hilst’s grandmother, to pray for her.
His aunt suffered an accident, but escaped without a scratch. When she came home, she told her mother in jest that her prayers had lost their effect. The older woman replied that she didn’t “pray for metal.”
For Mr. Duye, whose family tradition makes him a regular visitor, the blessings haven’t helped his cars much either. Asked if he had ever had an accident, he laughed and replied “Many times.”